What a surprise

The BBC is reporting that the British Armed Forces are currently struggling with retention of personnel because morale has been damaged by increasing levels of operational commitment:

The strain of operating at full capacity in Afghanistan and Iraq has left the services “deteriorating”, a defence select committee report says.

Personnel do not get enough rest time, and budgets are spiralling out of control, its annual MoD report adds.

Defence minister Bob Ainsworth said the forces were achieving “our highest priority – success on operations”.

Well, what a surprise. Military personnel are feeling overworked and overstretched? You could see this coming from decades ago, back during my early years in the RAF when Options for Change was announced and the defence budgets were slashed. Let’s make our armed forces so small that they can hardly maintain their current commitments, never mind any new campaign that might appear on the horizon.

One of my main reasons for leaving the RAF was entirely down to these sorts of government policy decisions. I was servicing in a tactical unit from RAF Brize Norton (TCW – Tactical Communications Wing) and spent over half the year either abroad on operation or away on exercise. There were not enough people working on too many commitments and when I was offered an extension on my contract (from my current 12 years to 22 years) I declined. Sod that for a game of soldiers.

It’s a shame, because I loved the work that I did but I spent so long away from home that family life was detrimentally affected. There were plenty of others in the same boat as me too, so to see them now complaining about recruitment levels just makes me laugh. You reap what you sow.

Still, if you’re prepared for a lot of travel and enjoy being deployed all over the world at short notice then I could still heartily recommend trying the UK forces as a career option. Just don’t sign on for too long initially, and don’t plan on being married. It really isn’t a career for those wanting to see their other half.

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Impaled by my girlfriend

No, the title of this post isn’t about Jo and I having a knife fight, nor even some sort of weird sexual shenanigans. Jo works for the wonderful people down at the National Blood Service and I was her first victim of the day.

I’d never been before. This wasn’t due to any particular fear of needles (although the thought of having a huge needle inserted into one of my tiny little veins doesn’t exactly seem much fun), nor because of a lack of desire to do my duty but more to do with not actually ever getting around to it. Yes, it’s that old procrastination issue again. I’m a bugger for it.

Jo was working at the main Donor Centre today and as I’m on a late shift I figured I should really, really do my best to get my lazy arse out of bed and give over 470ml of my precious O Positive. So, I did.

The experience wasn’t quite was I expected. I knew I had to be asked a number of highly personal questions during screening but it’s still a little embarrassing to be asked if I’ve ever “had sex with another man, either with or without protection”. Thankfully the only question I answered “yes” to was regarding travelling outside the UK within the last 12 months and I don’t think that Vancouver is too rife with tropical diseases in the middle of winter.

Anyway, the girls down there are all very lovely and the process was all professionally done. I passed the iron level test (no anaemia for me!) and was led into blood extraction room where I was laid on “bed” and prepared for my ordeal.

It really wasn’t that bad at all. Jo was the lead stabber, er vena-puncturer, and so she got to do the deed. “You’ll feel a sharp scratch,” she said, obviously being trained not to say “small prick”. It hardly hurt at all, in fact the blood sample taken for my iron test hurt more. The needle went in and the blood poured out of me at a healthy rate. It only took 5′ 34 seconds for the 470ml of life-blood to seep out of me.

My fingers felt a bit odd during the donation – kind of like pins and needles – but there was nothing about the whole thing to be even remotely worried about. I have no idea why I didn’t do it before!

Anyway, they’re always needing blood, so unless you’ve got good reasons not to donate (such as being a homosexual, drug-user, prostitute or suffering from some highly contagious disease) then I would urge you to head down to your nearest centre and give a little bit of your time for an essential service. You may just save a life.

On a related note – it’s disappointing to see that they prevent you from giving blood if you’re male and you’ve ever had oral or anal sex with another man, with or without protection. I suppose that the aim of that rule is a precaution to ensure that there are no HIV or AIDS anti-bodies in the donated blood but surely they should allow donations for people that have been tested subsequently or even for gay men in relationships that are known to be clear of those diseases?

Oooops

Well, it seems that I’ve neglected to write anything on here in over three weeks. Well, quite a lot has been going on and I shall write some back-dated posts sooner or later.

In the meantime, I’ll just say that we had a great holiday in Canada and other parts of the Northwest Pacific and really didn’t want to come home. We’re both back at work, normality returned.

New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day started with a headache and slight nausea. OK, quite a bit of nausea. I’d have been fine if I’d just stuck to the moonshine but there was also some Tequila in there two, plus a considerable quantity of beer. Still, despite my poorlyness we had another hearty breakfast courtesy of the lovely Miraya.

We’d decided that we were going to visit one of the local discount retail outlets in order to grab some sale bargains, so off we went once we’d filled up on coffee. The weather wasn’t quite as nice but at least it wasn’t raining. We drove down the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, a quite spectacular drive. The Columbia River Gorge is part of the USA’s first protected natural areas and is quite stunning. The river itself is gorgeous and is lined with some spectacular scenery.

One of the most impressive waterfalls along the way is Multnomah Falls – the second highest year-round waterfall in the USA. It’s nothing like the incredible Niagara Falls – it’s much more narrow – but its setting is quite beautiful.

Multnomah Falls in b&w

It was definitely a “black and white day” photographically. The falls are set in series of inset cliffs and there’s not much light in there, especially on a grey day. I did the best I could with the conditions and I quite like the black and white conversion I did on the shot above. I tried to get some shots closer in but the falls produce and awful lot of misty drizzle and my lens got soaked.

The Falls are very obvious from the road and you really must stop and wander over to have a closer look if you’re driving past. The views are entirely free!

Once I’d done my best to ruin my most expensive lens (don’t worry – it was fine) we headed off to do some shopping. I’m not going to expound on that – shopping is boring!

We returned in the early evening as we were going to head out for a meal with our hosts and their parents. We visited the Riverside Grill, the excellent restaurant in the Hood River Inn. The meal was just fantastic! I’d never had Lobster Bisque before so I decided to try that for my entree, and it was utterly delicious. My main course was seared halibut with some quite lovely lobster pancakes. I could barely fit it all in, but I gave it my best shot. The prices were also very affordable and as the food as much, much better than your average American Diner I would definitely recommend this place. I should think and evening meal by the riverside would be something special in the summer, though the decision to stay indoors in December was easily made.

During the meal Steve’s father, the wonderfully eccentric Bob, told us that when the New Year rolled in he’d gone outside with one of his guns (a pistol of some description apparently) and fired off a clip. Crikey! If you do that in the UK you’ll have a prompt visit from the Old Bill. It’s difficult for us Brits to really appreciate the total difference in cultures between our nations sometimes.

Once the meal was done we headed back up the mountain again – our last night in the wonderful winterland. I really did not want to leave and hope to visit again sooner rather than later.

New Year’s Eve

We managed to pack quite a bit into New Year’s Eve. Jen and James are moving to Oregon in a few weeks and are going to be renting a rather nice house in a place called The Dalles. This is a quaint small town at the end of the old Oregon trail and we paid it a visit so that we could view their new place. It’s a quintessentially American country house, as you can see:

Living in The Dalles

Jen will be working at the local hospital while they look for more permanent accommodation but this house is situated on a nice little plot right next to an orchard with some lovely views over the local countryside. It has three large bedrooms, ample living space and a septic field. Which is nice.

We pottered about in that part of the world for a bit and headed back up the mountain again with the promise of moonshine and snow-mobiling. The weather was just brilliant and clear so the views of the local mountains was spectacular. We’ve had a lot of rain and so it was great to have at least one day where the sun was out. Mount Snowden provided us with a great view of Mount Adams from the driveway of one of the plots on the way up:

Mount Adams

We arrived back at Steve and Miraya’s before it got dark and so I took the opportunity to take a few photos around Steve’s front “yard”. Their house is built in a spectacular 20 acre plot and Steve has bought, and arranged artistically, about 250 vehicles of various levels of serviceability around his garden. He owns a car body shop and these are all an investment for parts and future projects, however they look absolutely wonderful in the snow:

One or two cars in there somewhere

Once I’d finished filling up my memory card in my camera I ventured inside for some beer o’clock activities before heading out for some extreme snow-mobile action! I’d never been on one of these beasts before and Steve happened to have three of the bloody things. He has lots of toys and we got to play with them too, so we headed towards one of his neighbours fields with lots of horsepower and some tubes in an attempt at breaking a few necks.

Backseat driverWe didn’t manage to break anything but we did have a huge amount of fun. Snow-mobiles have to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on! We raced around this field at insane speeds with big smiles on our faces. There was some lovely slopes to get some air-time and some water to make sure that we needed to get dried out once we made it back to the house. Riding along in the tubes is a lot of fun too, although having a tonne of snow shoved repeatedly into your face hurts just a little bit.

I took a few photos of the others racing around although it started getting a bit dark when the tubes got attached to the back. Still, if you ever get a chance to have a go on one of these things then you really must try it out.

So, legs intact we headed back to the house to continue beer-related activities. Thankfully, Steve also has a hot-tub so we were able to bathe our aching limbs in soothing bubbles while reducing the alcohol stockpile. We sat in there for about an hour – it was pure heaven!

Still, we couldn’t sit in there all evening as Steve and Miraya were expecting guests – mostly family – and Steve had acquired some bona-fida moonshine for the event. This was the proper stuff – 190 proof and made out of corn. As the evening progressed Miraya seemed intend on getting me to drink most of it myself, but I successfully fended her off so that my brain didn’t become too mushy before the New Year arrived.

The moonshine actually tasted more smooth than the Tequila I was also tasting. It’s probably because of its purity but it didn’t taste too bad when taken as a shooter with the salt and lemon thing going on too. I wasn’t too pissed when headed out to see some of the neighbours fireworks at around midnight.

Pretty

The fireworks were fun (and free!) and there was lots of kissing for new year. I think I managed to avoid all the people with ‘taches for that. Fireworks over we headed back to the house for more moonshine and beer.

If I’d have had internet access at the time (rather than blogging about it four days later) I’d have taken this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy New Year!

The art of falling gracefully

Sunday 30th of December saw us determined to head off over to Mount Hood to try our hand at skiing. I’d never been before but Jen and James are old hands so we decided to risk our necks on the slopes during a rather heavy snow-storm.

We rose early and had a hearty breakfast courtesy of our hosts. It was snowing like buggery again but it did make Steve and Miraya’s front yard look rather beautiful:

Front Yard (and a half)

All the snow made the drive to Mount Hood somewhat interesting. Thankfully, James is more than experienced at driving in these conditions and we managed to negotiate our way into Oregon and up the side of a very high, snowy peak. The signs were not particularly helpful – we could hardly tell if we were heading in the right direction for quite a while. However, we eventually arrived at one of the lower car parks where we caught a bus up to the resort.

The snow was getting really heavy at this point but we came here for skiing and skiing we would do. Jo and I decided to buy two hours of private tuition as we’d never been skiing before so we bought the lessons, hired the gear we needed and headed out to the slopes to meet our instructor.

Bunny Slope

The lessons turned out to be a fantastic idea. Our instructor, Peter Nance, was brilliant. He taught us the basics and had us skiing around the baby slopes in no time. He was really friendly and helpful and even though I managed to fall over on the pull-rope heading up the baby slope (along with a four-year old) I was feeling confident enough to try out the first green slope.

I managed to get three goes down the “buttercup” before my two hours ran out. The third time down the slope I managed to completely wipe myself out by going a little too fast for my fledgling skiing abilities. I landed on my head but where there’s no sense there’s no feeling right?

After handing in our rented gear we headed to the bar for apple cider (for the girls) and beer and chilli (for me) before heading back down the mountain. I managed to take a couple of shots just before we left as the snow had stopped, mostly, and I could see further than a few yards in from of my face.

Mount Hood

The drive back was even more slippy than the way up but we made it back to White Salmon in one piece, where there was more beer waiting for us. I like beer.

The skiing was such a lot of fun and I can hardy wait to try it again.

From the Space Needle to White Salmon

Saturday 29th of December 2007 I woke up with a hell of a hangover. I really had no-one to blame but myself – well, myself and those bastards at the Pike Brewing Co for making such delicious beer.

Space NeedleLuckily the rain was holding off long enough for us to head out and see the Space Needle once we’d indulged in the free breakfast from those lovely people at the Travelodge. It was exactly gourmet food or anything but it was included in the price and the coffee was pretty good.

We arrived at the Needle before most other tourists. There was no-one in the queue when we got there and the lift was fairly empty when we headed up to the top. The Space Needle was built in the 1960s and must have been one hell of an achievement at the time. These days the CN Tower is taller and has a better view (in my opinion anyway) but you really do have to head up to the 520′ viewing platform and have a look out at the city of Seattle.

Seattle

The tall buildings have been kept to a minimum but they still look rather lovely nestled among the hills. This something that Seattle has over the very flat Toronto – some nice rolling hills around the city and some magnificent mountains behind. The clouds were rather low in the sky so the big mountains were hiding. You can nearly see Mount Rainier in the background in the photo above and Mount Baker can be seen in a different direction – if the weather holds up.

The wind was a little brisk that day and it went right through you up at the top of the Needle. We didn’t hang around all day but we did spend a little time admiring the view. It’s quite spectacular. I did a cute shot in the reflection of the windows back over downtown:

Bloody Tourists!

After a while we ventured back down the lift and across to the EMP, the Experience Music Project. We didn’t have time to head in there but I did take the time to walk around and take some shots. It’s an incredible building! I loved the reflections in the curvy sides but it was a shame that the sun wasn’t out.

EMP

After a delicious lunch at the waterfront (and an argument with some arsehole of a parking attendant) we headed on our way towards Portland. We weren’t going to stop in Portland but it was interesting to see it on the way past. It’s a very industrial city by the looks of it and I’ve had liked to have spent a few hours wandering around taking photos. Sadly, time was limited and it was pissing down with rain again. What is it with the Pacific North West and the rain? I thought we had it bad in the UK.

We were heading, ultimately, so see James’ cousin in a gorgeous small town in Washington State called White Salmon. It was dark when we got there but it looked beautiful – exactly how you’d imagine small-town America to be. It’s nestled on the Columbia River right on the Washington/Oregon border. James’ cousin Steve lives with his wife about 12 miles away up a very snowy mountain. It took us about 25 minutes to get there and I was glad that we had 4-wheel drive. It was snowing like buggery!

When we got to their house they were not even there! Their house is at about 2,200 feet and, of course, there’s no mobile reception. Their dog, Solomon, was there but apparently he didn’t have the keys to let us in out of the cold. We waited for a bit but decided that we’d go see Steve’s mother and father who lived further down the mountain and closer to civilisation. On the way back down the mountain we thought we saw Steve and Miraya heading up. We weren’t sure though so we kept going until we got some mobile reception. We telephoned back up to the house and Miraya was there, so off we went back up again. Steve, apparently, was on the way back down the mountain to find us.

We got back up the mountain again and was greeted by the excitable Solomon and the lovely Miraya, who has to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. Steve turned up after a few minutes and we soon headed back down the mountain once again (after a few drinks!) to get a meal at a local pizza restaurant.

Steve and Miraya were such excellent hosts and lovely people. Steve had built their house on his own, just about, over a period of eight years and it’s set in a wonderful 20 acres of land in the most beautiful place you could imagine! We couldn’t see very much of it, what with the snow and darkness, so we left the exploration until the Sunday. In the meantime we had a really good time getting to know each other and generally diminishing Steve’s alcohol reserves.